Rich in history and unmatched culinary prowess, San Sebastian—a coastal city perched on the southern end of the Basque Region’s Bay of Biscay—is home to not only Europe’s oldest language, but to a treasure trove of culturally unique experiences. It's also the birthplace of the world-famous pintxo, a tapa-like culinary concoction that combines next-level gastronomy with an aesthetic flourish.
Stay: 3–4 days
Region: Basque Country
Fast Fact: San Sebastian has the second-most Michelin-star restaurants per capita of any city in the world.
Nearby Destinations: Bilbao, the Pyrenees Mountains, Rioja wine region
Equal parts resort town and remote enclave, San Sebastian has steadily climbed the tourist destination ranks, bringing in anywhere from 347,376 to 357,761 overnight visitors during its busy summer months, according to recent figures. Semana Grande, its biggest festival of the year, draws thousands every August. Learn how to celebrate Semana Grande with the best of them.
San Sebastian’s seamless blend of jaw-dropping sights, beaches, surfing, restaurants, and history make it a must-see destination for avid travelers and first-time adventurers alike.
Given San Sebastian’s relatively small surface area (about 23.5 square miles, or 60 square kilometers), it is quite easy to get around via public transportation or taxi. Depending on the length of your stay, a rechargeable MUGI card might be your best bet. These handy little cards are sold and can be recharged at most newsstands and some tabaqueros (tobacco shops) throughout the city.
According to the website of d·bus, the official bus company of San Sebastian, “the card itself costs €5.00 and is valid for twelve months from the last recharge date. Each bus trip will deduct €1.19 from the card for day fares and €2.10 for night fares. The card is good for an unlimited number of trips and a maximum of 31 transfers.”
A full map of routes and timetables can be found on the d·bus website or at any tourism office.
Top Things to Do
Playa de la Concha
La Concha is the quintessential beach paradise. With a beautiful shoreline and views of San Sebastian’s mountains flanking the sand, it’s no wonder this is one of the most well-known urban beaches in Europe.
La Concha stretches out for approximately a kilometre and a half, with restaurants, a carousel, vendors and extraordinary city views stretching along its boardwalk. Any visit to San Sebastian wouldn’t be complete without a few long strolls up and down this boardwalk and dips in the warm bay water.
Just through a tunnel and past the gorgeous overlook of Miramar, you'll find Ondarreta beach at the foot of Monte Igueldo.
La Parte Vieja
La Parte Vieja, the “old town” of San Sebastian, is one of the most popular areas of the city. Known for its narrow, cobblestone streets lined storefront to storefront with revered bars and restaurants, the old town constantly offers something new to discover.
Here, you’ll find such architectural marvels as the Basilica de Santa Maria and the San Telmo Museoa, an impressive cultural hub promising historical art collections along with modern exhibitions. You’ll wander through the narrow streets crisscrossed by arches and happen upon the Plaza de la Constitución, a former bullring where the numbers above the door indicate the former seat numbers. And finally, exploring and indulging in the pintxos here at least once during your stay is a must.
Going Out For Pintxos in Europe's Gastronomic Capital
A pintxo (pronounced “pincho”) is a small snack typically served in bars. You might want to call it a tapa but you’d best not: a pintxo is generally much more elaborate, and shows off the gastronomic finesse of the establishment where it’s served.
Pintxo culture reigns supreme in San Sebastian and the best way to navigate it is to come hungry. The typical way to eat pintxos is to hop from bar to bar, trying each one’s specialty.
If you’d rather skip the sometimes-daunting research into “San Sebastian’s best pintxo bars,” the Pintxo Passport might be the ideal guide. For €85, the passport includes a detailed description of 11 top pintxo bars, a map of the old town, a mini phrasebook, a glossary, historical info, and a wine guide. It comes with six wooden tokens, redeemable at six bars, where you receive a drink and a special pintxo. The passport also includes one special token for a cocktail in the Hotel Maria Cristina DRY bar. It can be purchased online or at the Hotel Maria Cristina. And as if this nifty little guide wasn’t useful enough, the Pintxo Passport does not expire, so it can be used for a future trip.
Along with trying out as many restaurants on as many streets in the old town as you can, the architecture in this part of the city is not to be missed. The Gothic-style Iglesia de San Vicente is said to be the oldest in the city, dating from the early 16th century. The building’s rectangular plan, rose windows, and pointed arches are strikingly beautiful.
Another impactul house of worship is the Basilica de Santa Maria. This Baroque-era structure dates back to the 18th century and is located on the old town’s bustling Calle Mayor. It provides a breathtaking backdrop for the narrow streets as its facade and large sculptures peek through the avenues.
If you’re seeking local thrills, walk about 10 minutes from the Parte Vieja to the trendy neighborhood of Gros. There, you’ll find la Zurriola Beach. Zurriola provides the waves—all you need is a board and a wetsuit. Pukas Surf, a family-owned company, has been making surfboards in San Sebastian since 1973. The shop has two locations and provides board rentals and surf lessons at Zurriola Beach.
The Monte Igueldo Amusement Park, located on the west end of the Playa de la Concha, is a must-see. Fun for all ages, the park’s main feature is a more than 100-year-old funicular. This mountainside train, which carries passengers in a wooden carriage through the trees of the mountainside, was (and arguably still is) the most popular means of transport to get to the top of Monte Igueldo.
Once you’re there, the park boasts several other enticing attractions like a thrilling boat ride around the mountainside, a labyrinth, a haunted house, bumper cars, games, and more. It’s all from another era—no high-speed roller coasters here—and loads of fun.
San Sebastian Aquarium
If marine life is more your scene, be sure to check out the San Sebastian Aquarium. Attracting upwards of 300,000 visitors a year, the aquarium is one of Basque Country’s most popular destinations. Located in San Sebastian’s picturesque harbour, right next to the Parte Vieja, this aquatic wonderland won’t let you down.
A short, steep hike to the mountaintop at the heart of the Parte Vieja affords magical views of the entire bay. It's a lovely place for a picnic on one of the shady benches that line the winding paths up through an old fortification to the statue of Jesus that tops the mountain. Grab a sandwich or a pastry in the early morning hours for a slow, cool ascent and a big payoff.
For a complete guide to eating pintxos in San Sebastian, check out a list of our 10 favorite pintxo spots in town, complete with recommendations and mouth-watering photos.
Basque Culinary Center
Specialties: Fresh, locally sourced, seasonal ingredients
Address: Paseo Juan Avelino Barriola, 101
Price Point: $$$$
The Basque Culinary Center is the San Sebastian food scene’s diamond in the rough. Offering an entire seasonal menu (of Michelin-quality food) for €26, the center’s training workshop is where students of the Degree in Gastronomy and Culinary Arts put into practice what they’ve learned with real clients. The tasting menu is based on seasonal products, highlighting local ingredients, and changes each week. The meal will consist of a starter, fish, meat, dessert and petit fours. The experience is reservation only and can be made online through BCC’s website.
Specialties: Tortilla de patata, steak, peppers, tomato salad
Address: Arrandegi Kalea, 11
Price Point: $$$$
A tried-and-true favorite among locals and tourists alike, Bar Nestor is an award-winning eatery with decades of tradition informing its menu.
They only have four offerings on the menu: a traditional tortilla de patata (cooked only twice a day for lunch and dinner), sauteed and perfectly salted shishito peppers, a tomato salad, and the showstopper: a big honkin’ steak.
While it may seem like a lot of hype for little takeaway, Nestor has perfected its menu, and it shows. This was one of my favorite meals in all of the Basque Country. It was simple, delicious, and memorable. Nestor opens at around 1 p.m., so make sure to get there early to reserve a slice of tortilla. If the gate is half-open, duck underneath and let them know you’d like to put your name down for a piece. Otherwise, good luck getting your hands on any of that potato-y, onion-y goodness.
Old Town Coffee
Specialties: Coffee, cappuccino, cinnamon rolls
Address: Reyes Católicos Kalea, 6
Price Point: $$$$
A coffee-lovers dream, Old Town Coffee leaves nothing to be desired and everything to be remembered. The friendly staff is always willing to make recommendations and the incredible (house-made) cinnamon rolls will make you scoff at any cinnamon rolls past. It’s a great way to start your day or perfect for an energizing afternoon pick-me-up. .
Specialties: Seasonal mushrooms with egg yolk, white asparagus, pintxos
Address: San Jeronimo Kalea, 19
Price Point: $$$$
Picture a heaping plate of the freshest seasonal mushrooms you can get your hands on. Now picture an egg yolk served on top that you mix in for a rich, creamy flavor boost. That is only part of the bliss that is a lunch or dinner at Ganbara.
With an overwhelming number of pintxos on the bar, you really can’t go wrong trying as much as you can fit. Their huge piece of white asparagus, baked to perfection, however, is a another definite must-try. Their pintxo selection is out-of-this world, so try not to get too overwhelmed when walking into the spread (of what looks like hundreds) of different plates on the bar.
Mala Gissona Beer House
Specialties: Craft beer, bar food
Address: Zabaleta Kalea, 53
Price Point: $$$$
Don’t miss out on this sweet little brewery near Zurriola Beach. Mala Gissona offers an outstanding selection of craft beers and full-sized bar food instead of pintxos. Their chicken wings were out-of-this-world and came with a choice of different spicy and mild sauces. The bartenders and friendly staff were incredibly helpful and open to giving local recommendations.
Specialties: Seasonal, locally sourced, grilled food
Address: San Juan Plaza, 1
Price Point: $$$$
With restaurants like Asador Etxebarri in its ranks, it’s no wonder why Spain’s Basque Region has been lauded with as many Michelin stars as it has. This unforgettable culinary experience is a once-in-a-lifetime deal. But with reservations booking up several months in advance, snagging a table is no easy feat.
The incredible tasting menu and wine pairing are more than worth the wait. Asador Etxebarri was named the sixth-best restaurant in the world in 2015 and has notably been namedropped as the place where many professional chefs/culinary rockstars would want their last meal to be.
Featured Place to Stay: Artea Narrika
Address: Narrika, 3-1
Price Point: $$$$
Located at the heart of the Parte Vieja, this luxurious but affordable spot is just a short walk away from both La Concha and Zurriola beaches. There’s simply no better location to stay in all of San Sebastian. The rooms offer bright views of the historic streets surrounding the hotel and are clean and well-kept. Highly recommended for anyone visiting San Sebastian! Book your stay at Guesthouse Artea Narrika.
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